‘Mario’s Story’: No happy ending, yet
There is the Roman Catholic nun who worked as a chaplain at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. A group of high-powered, white-collar lawyers from a premier law firm ensconced in one of downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers. And a Latino family from Highland Park devastated by a son sentenced to life in prison.
Ordinarily, their lives might never have crossed -- except for Mario.
He was only 16, Mario Rocha would later write, when police officers burst into his bedroom with guns drawn on Feb. 23, 1996, yelling: “Don’t move! Hands up! Get down!”
Today, at 27, Rocha has spent the intervening years incarcerated for murder, all the while proclaiming his innocence.
He was tried as an adult and convicted along with two co-defendants by a Los Angeles jury. His sentence: 35 years to life for murder and 29 years to life for attempted murder. A California appeals court, however, overturned his conviction last December on grounds that he did not receive a fair trial because of a flawed investigation conducted by his own trial attorney. Rocha remains incarcerated pending a decision by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office on whether to retry the case.
Now, two award-winning filmmakers, Jeff Werner and Susan Koch, have brought Rocha’s legal odyssey to the big screen in a probing documentary called “Mario’s Story,” which premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Monday evening at the Landmark Regent in Westwood. Another screening is scheduled Wednesday afternoon at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood.
It is a film that Rocha himself has yet to see.
“I wish I could watch it, but I guess I’m too busy living it,” the soft-spoken Rocha said earlier this week in a phone call from Los Angeles County Central Jail, where he was recently moved from state prison until his fate is known.
Rocha might never have seen his conviction overturned had it not been for the dogged detective work of Sister Janet Harris and attorneys at the Latham & Watkins law firm, who worked on the case pro bono.
“I honestly, wholeheartedly believed the case would be dropped at my first court date,” Rocha said. “Ten years later, I’m still waiting for that to happen. It’s been so long now. I’ve just become who I am. Who I am is someone accustomed to being behind bars. They say I’m doing time, but I’m not doing time, I’m investing in my time. It’s all for a reason.”
When they set out to make “Mario’s Story,” the filmmakers never dreamed it would be such a long journey.
“We were, perhaps, a little naive,” Werner said. “Rather than take a year or two, as one might have suspected, [legal] delays kept happening. Now, here we are sitting here eight years later, he’s still in prison, and there is no resolution.”
Ian Graham, one of several Latham & Watkins lawyers who have worked on the case, noted how much Rocha has changed behind bars."He was sort of a young, pudgy kid [when he was arrested] -- now he’s a real man,” said Graham, who worked alongside Robert Long, lead counsel on the case.
Harris, the nun who has championed Rocha’s cause for nearly a decade, called him “pretty amazing. “Whenever I talk to him on the phone, we pray at the end. His faith is strong, but he’s emotionally exhausted and psychologically, I can feel him being very fragile.... It’s tough.”
What the filmmakers quickly discovered was that getting the criminal justice system to overturn a guilty verdict is rare. Only about 1% of the about 30,000 habeas corpus petitions filed each year are granted, the filmmakers point out.
Koch, who also produced the film, had been working with Werner on a film about young female offenders when she learned of Rocha and met Harris.
Beyond the questions about Rocha’s guilt or innocence, Koch was drawn to Mario himself because of the promise he showed as a writer.
“Sister Janet had founded a writing program at Juvenile Hall and Mario was in the first writing group,” Koch said. “The program was called ‘InsideOut.’ I really feel this is what sustained him during that whole time.” Harris was assisted in the program by former Los Angeles Times reporter Duane Noriyuki.
Rocha said his love of writing was spawned by an interest in reading and expressing himself. He would write letters to his family and then poetry.
“Even before my incarceration, I used to privately and secretly write rap lyrics that I wouldn’t show anyone,” he recalled. He read books like “Always Running,” by Luis J. Rodriguez, biographies of Nelson Mandela, and such works as “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
“Duane showed me [Mario’s] work before the trial was over, and I started to question some of the issues raised in his essays,” Harris recalled. “I can get the truth out of a rock. I know how to read [a person’s] body language. I talked to people who had been at the party and they told me, ‘Absolutely not. Mario had nothing to do with it.’ I thought, he’s going to win this trial.”
When the verdict came back guilty, Harris said, she was “totally shocked.”
The conviction stemmed from a double shooting the night of Feb. 16, 1996, during a keg party in Highland Park. There was a fistfight, then gunfire. Martin Aceves, 17, an honors student at Cathedral High School near downtown L.A., who had just been accepted to Cal State Northridge, lay dead. Another partygoer was shot in the hand.
Rocha denies owning a gun or having one the night of the party. When gunfire erupted, he said this week, he was “in the back hiding with everyone else. I was running away from where I thought the shots were coming from.”
Prosecutors maintain he was convicted on the basis of evidence presented in court, including eyewitness testimony.
Los Angeles police Det. Rick Peterson, interviewed on camera, said one witness “was positive, no question in his mind, that it was Mario” who fired a gun that night.
But Graham, the defense attorney, said: “There are three people who made some indication he looked like the person who was shooting at the party. One person has officially recanted. The other one has said, ‘I caught a glimpse and he looked most like the person I saw shooting.’ ”
Furthermore, Graham said, “Nobody ever said Mario shot the person who died.”
“There were two other people convicted with him who were known gang members and were seen going around the party accosting people and were seen with weapons,” Graham added. “Nobody ever saw [Rocha] with a gun or accosting anybody. A fistfight broke out. These two other gang members were in the middle of that fistfight.”
Graham also said Rocha was not a gang member and had no gang tattoos but, nonetheless, was still tainted in the jury’s eyes by the introduction of gang evidence at trial. "[Prosecutors] had a gang expert who identified the two co-defendants as members of a gang, but he didn’t say anything about Mario.”
Rocha’s conviction was overturned because of the conduct of his trial attorney. The appeals court noted that he spent little time preparing for the trial. For example, the judges wrote, “His October timesheets reveal that he spent only 8 1/2 hours on petitioner’s case that month.”
Rocha said he still thinks about the young man who was killed that day and the pain that the victim’s family must be going through.
“I oftentimes wonder where Martin would be right now had he not died,” Rocha said. “But I never knew Martin. I knew he had a lot of respect from his peers. I learned all of this later.... I wish there was something I could do to change the perspective of his family on my specific case.”
Rocha said he feels “fortunate and blessed” to have had his conviction overturned but knows that the odds against him getting out are huge: “I’ve asked people who get out -- you know, it’s a revolving door around here -- ‘How does it feel to get out?’ I’ve never experienced that. I’ve never gotten out.”
But if he did get out, he knows what he would do.
“I would like to spend it with my family and be with nature -- to be able to exist outside these walls under the stars. It’s been 10 years since I was able to be under the stars, under the night sky. I tell my cousin, ‘I’m not joking, I just want to camp out in somebody’s backyard, sleep all night under the stars and wake up in the morning.’ ”